Last season, it was Giannis Antetokounmpo — we all knew he was an athletic freak, we all knew he was good, but Jason Kidd put the ball in his hands and he broke out as a player to become an All-Star and an All-NBA player. Other players such as Nikola Jokic in Denver and Rudy Gobert in Utah had their moments breaking out, even if they didn’t pull in all the accolades of the Greek Freak.
Who will it be this season? Who is about to have their breakout year? Here are our top five players to watch.
1) Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves. I can hear you saying, “he’s already broken out” as a 25.1 points and 12.3 rebound per game player last season as an NBA sophomore. He’s showing up in Gatorade ads with Michael Jordan, that’s the definition of breaking out. Yes, basketball and sports fans know Towns is amazing (he just missed making the All-NBA third team), but he is exactly where Antetokounmpo was one season ago — on the cusp of greatness and blowing up into the casual sports fans consciousness. Towns can add to his offensive game (although with Jimmy Butler and the added talent on the Timberwolves roster his counting stats likely don’t climb much), but what really has to happen is he has to get better and be more focused on the defensive end. Do that, lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs (in a season Minnesota is on a lot more nationally televised games) and Towns can have the same kind of breakout year the Greek Freak had last season.
2) Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers. He’s an impressive young player about to get a big opportunity. Last season he averaged 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game — and that was with Paul George as the focal point of the offense. George is now in Oklahoma City, the Pacers are rebuilding, and they see Turner as one of their core players going forward — he’s going to get the rock a lot. Turner good on the pick-and-roll with the ability to pop out and hit a jumper, he works hard off the ball, he has a strong post game, he’s good on the glass, and he’s just 21. If he can improve, and stay efficient with all the extra touches, Turner could have a big year on a team taking a step backward.
3) Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers. He may be exactly what Portland needs. Last season he looked like it — he played just 20 games for the Blazers before an injury but averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game and the went 14-6. When he was on the floor with the Trail Blazers they a top-10 offense (110.6 points per 100 possessions) but more importantly they were decent defensively (105.4 per 100 allowed, middle of the NBA pack), and when on the floor the Blazers outscored teams by 5.2 points per 100. Can he replicate that? Can he stay healthy for a full season? If so, Nurkic could have a monster season.
4) Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz. Gordon Hayward and George Hill are gone, and someone is going to have to create offense for Utah this season. Enter Hood. Utah GM Dennis Lindsey said this summer “We believe Rodney Hood can be a primary scorer.” Two seasons ago he showed promise along those lines when he averaged 14.5 points a game and did so fairly efficiently, but that stagnated a little last season as he battled injuries. Even last season, he was very good as a pick-and-roll ball handler but he was looking to score not get others involved. Now he has to prove he can orchestrate an offense, not just get himself buckets. Bottom line is Hood is going to get the opportunity to break out, the Jazz need buckets and Hood is going to be asked to create them.
5) Clint Capela, Houston Rockets. This is a right place/right time selection. All the attention will be on the backcourt of Chris Paul and James Harden, but those guys need someone they can throw lobs to, and Capela is that — he’s very good as the role man, last season averaging 1.14 points per possession when he got the ball back. Capela also works hard off the ball. Last season, as Harden was having an MVP-level season, Capela had career-bests of 12.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, and he shot 64.3 percent. He’s going to get a lot of easy looks this season. Most importantly, the Rockets need a defensive backstop on this team and Capela can be that, the guy like Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, or DeAndre Jordan who cleans up the messes of others. Do that, on a team that’s going to get a lot of exposure, and Capela will be a breakout player.